LYON, France – While Liv Ullmann looks back on an illustrious career as an icon of international film and theater, indelibly shaped by her professional and personal relationship with Ingmar Bergman, it is her work with refugees that she describes as one of the most important parts of her life.
Speaking on Sunday at the Lumière Film Festival in Lyon, France, where she is a guest of honor, Ullmann recounted stories of her relationship with Bergman and her career as a film and stage actress and director, but it was in talking about her work with refugees that she was the most passionate.
As the co-founder of the Women’s Refugee Commission, Ullmann has been an advocate for the rights of women, children and adolescent refugees worldwide for the past 30 years.
“[The subject of] refugees and immigrants is so important, even more so today,” Ullmann said. “To also have the opportunity to meet and to be a spokesperson for people who do not reach other people, that is also part of being an artist and it is also a part of being a human being.
“I do not believe that refugees or immigrants are terrorists or bad people. I believe that they are leaving their homes because their home can no longer protect them. I believe they look at the ocean because the ocean seems safer than their own home.”
Asked how her work and relationship with Bergman changed her life, Ullmann said life is constantly changing. “It’s not a before and after. As in life, everything changes. I had done many films and theater work in Norway before Ingmar. And then I met Ingmar and my life also became different and I grew older. Then I did other things. I did Swedish films, ‘The Emigrants’ and ‘The New Land,’ which brought me to Hollywood because I was nominated for an Oscar. Life changes.”
Ullmann joked that she became a Hollywood star for a mere two years. “They thought I was so sweet – I did not look like Ingmar Bergman’s erotic women at all. Everybody wanted me in their movies. So I was a Hollywood star for two years. I did four Hollywood movies and I managed to almost close down two studios.”
After her in stint in Hollywood, she enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, then wrote two books. “And my life changes again. I always went back to Sweden and Norway, and did theater and films. And then 30 years ago I started to work with refugees and that probably was the most important change of my life.”
To be an actor, director or writer is also to be a spokesperson, Ullmann said. “It’s an incredible challenge. Ingmar Bergman used to say that he made movies not for the mind, but for the soul.”
Discussing her 1971 film “The Emigrants,” from director Jan Troell, Ullmann drew parallels between the story of poor 19th-century Swedish farmers who, facing starvation after failed harvests, embark on a journey to America, and refugees fleeing similar hardship today.
“That is the miracle of movies. You come into this room, it goes dark and then something happens up there. And you are sharing it with other people,” Ullmann said.
She added: “And words are said that you somehow had within you, or words that you have wondered about. That is the miracle of movies. It goes not to the mind, but to the soul. It is a reality beyond reality. And that is why it is so wonderful to be 80 years old soon and know, I was really lucky to have had this job.”
Asked about the countless awards she has won throughout her career, Ullmann said being honored with prizes was always fun, but at the end of the day, the trophies “don’t talk to me in the evening, they don’t talk to me in the morning.”
What is joyous are celebrations, like the one that opened the Lumière festival on Saturday. “To watch the whole miracle fiesta there, and to see Claude Lelouch’s movie [“Itinerary of a Spoiled Child”], and to sit at the dinner table and see these people who are actors, writers or directors – that is fantastic – and you go home and you are so, so grateful, and prizes are not in there at all.”